Yesterday I reposted an excellent article from Dylan Walker’s Skeptimus Prime blog. In it he explained that the reason he refuses to participate in Christmas prayers or other religious prayers or rituals with family or others is that as an ex-Christian he takes seriously the meaning of prayer. Prayer was a big part of his life and participating in it without believing in it would make it a trivializing exercise and would undermine his conscientious dissent from beliefs he doesn’t accept. He made a good case for why believers who take the meaning of their beliefs and their expressions seriously shouldn’t even want nonbelievers to participate them insincerely as though they were empty formalisms and gestures requiring nothing from the mind or heart to be valid. Defending conscience in matters of religion, including the intellectual, moral, and spiritual consciences of atheists to abstain from religious participation that contradicts their true beliefs and values, enhances the genuineness of religious expressions by making them more regularly and reliably indicators of true belief and commitment.
So then the question was raised in the comments to that post whether it was the true believers who even want to coerce their non-believing family, friends, and colleagues into religious participation against their will. Wouldn’t they already be on board with Dylan’s ideas? Wouldn’t they be insulted by nonbelievers lying before God and only saying the words of belief, prayer, or worship while not truly believing? The answer is that while this might bother some true believers, it doesn’t bother a good many who try to coerce nonbelievers into religious practices or, even, professions of faith against their will.
So, why might that be?
In this post, I am just going to speculate several implicit logical or psychological dynamics that might account for any given true believer trying to coerce religious participation from a non-believer.
They both sincerely believe in God and think that whether nonbelievers like it or not He has moral authority and supernatural power over all of us anyway. So, it becomes very much a matter of trying to assert God’s hegemony over the non-believer and get the non-believer to acquiesce to it at least verbally and in behavior. To at least many evangelical Christians what matters is that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. It’s a power issue. It matters that God be acknowledged. Because apparently what fun is all that power for God if He can’t get everyone to praise Him and tell Him how awesome He is all the time? And everyone knows that the most grudging confessions of your authority from your enemies who resent but can’t resist your power are as delicious as anything if you are an egocentric powerful person.
Remember, that many true believers interpret disbelief in God as a culpable act of defiance against God. Many believers think there are no atheists, but rather people who are in denial about the existence of God because they don’t want to recognize His moral authority over them. Or they think we must be going through a phase or being daft and so long as we just keep participating like everyone else in the religion we will wind up just coming along to belief like most everyone else does. Religious beliefs are usually not argued into people, they’re practiced into them.
They certainly have no qualms about getting small children to mimic all manner of religious beliefs and behaviors and participate in religious practices. That’s standard operating procedure, as much as inculcating language, basic knowledge, and teaching them to love their family members. Just as these aren’t treated like choices to be saved for detached adult consideration, so religious participation and love and acknowledgment of God are to be trained into children wholly irrespective of their insufficient cognitive capacities to intellectually assent to the preposterous belief statements they’re making or genuinely spiritually or morally consent to what they’re spiritually doing. So in many true believers’ minds, and especially parents of children–even into adulthood–, coercing us nonbelievers into participating in religious activities is a way of forcing us to acknowledge the truth they think we either already know or just need more training in in order to realize is true.
And even where they can actually accept that we don’t believe, depending on how literal we want to be (and one can never underestimate the powers of literalism of true believers), it’s even possible that implicitly or explicitly they see the Bible’s effusiveness about how even the rocks and trees will proclaim the glory of the Lord as expressing a view that praising God does not require even believing in Him. All that matters is that the praising words and acknowledgments happen. If that requires a bit of puppeteering, sobeit. To Calvinists the believer’s belief itself and the believer’s desire to praise God itself are both given completely and irresistably by God Himself. To Calvinists if you believe in God it’s because God decided you could do no otherwise. If you ecstatically love and worship and serve God it’s because God made it so you could not do otherwise.
And back to the importance of words even if they don’t express sincere belief, remember that religious people can be fairly superstitious about the power of words themselves, believing their mere utterance to have supernatural powers. In my post on why civic ceremonies should be divested of all religious connotations, I quoted one of my random religious friends’ responses to President Barack Obama reading a Psalm at a 9/11 memorial:
I saw part of it before leaving for church…BARAK OBAMA read a scripture!! Yes, you heard me right! He simply stood…read Psalm 46…and sat back down. I found it very significant that the man holding the most powerful office in the world…would read scripture while the whole world was watching! It doesn’t matter what you think of Obama…the Word was spoken! THAT is what was important!!
That capital “w” is not unimportant. Of course since the book of John says that Jesus is the Word and since many believers think their Holy Scriptures to be conveyors of God Himself through words, it’s not surprising that this devout friend who we can guess does not think of Obama as sufficiently (or at all?) sincere in his proclamations of Christian faith thinks that all that matters is that the most powerful man in the world would speak the Word. This is important probably because it’s seen as the most powerful man is at least cowed, in spite of his presumed lack of proper belief or proper political fealty, into acknowledging that God is the ultimate ruler. It’s also absolutely vitally important that the Word (or the words) be heard by all the onlookers that they might be influenced.
Humans are notoriously conformist creatures, susceptible to going along with whatever seems the dominant way of thinking or acting or liking. What matters to many true believers is that it appear everyone believe so that as many as possible can be influenced to want to believe to be like everyone else too. In many families, in particular, there is coercion of the nonbelievers to give as much appearance of belief (or at least invisibility of disbelief) as possible out of fear that others in the family (particularly the younger and more impressionable ones) might be “led astray”. A high proportion of my apostate friends report being scolded for daring to simply being open about the fact they don’t believe lest they run the terrible risk of imperiling others’ faiths. We threaten to drag others to hell. To many believers it’s far better we just play along acknowledging the one true God (who in truth deserves such acknowledgment anyway) than that we risk others’ eternal salvations.
They are also probably worried for the sake of their own faith. The more everyone around them participates in the faith, the more that it can be a total reality for them. Doubters and dissenters puncture the bubble. They force them to have to step out of a self-delusion that they want to completely accept. Even if they have to do this temporarily it conflicts with the desire to completely see the world through their religious beliefs as they desire. And some actively fear being led into doubt and losing their faith against their will.
In Islam this fear that open non-belief will induce apostasy in others goes so far that those atheists and apostates who dare do anything that might detract from the faithful’s ability to believe are often threatened with severe punishments (including death). Mere unbelief is usually tolerable as long as it’s kept to oneself and not pronounced publicly. Although there are more extreme definitions, apostasy is often defined as either an explicit conversion to another religion or merely public expression of doubt about the truthfulness of anything central to Islam. It’s often argued that the threat in this public expression of doubt is specifically that it might induce doubt in others and that that is what would truly justify punishment, though that is not explicitly stated in the Quran or the Hadith. (For a fuller, and I’m told very accurate, discussions of punishments for apostasy in Islam, check out Apostasyy: “Whoever changes his (Islamic) religion, kill him” by Abdallah al-Araby.)
And nonbelievers so often conform to this demand for deference, often out of an overabundance of tolerant respect for religious people’s feelings and often out of fear of judgment, that those with doubts are regularly isolated and unable even to recognize who else among them would be supportive of them in what they really think. Getting nonbelievers to not overtly dissent or refuse participation is a divide and conquer strategy the true believers see every advantage in employing.
This is a big part of why it matters so much to me to raise consciousness among nonbelievers that their own tolerant respectfulness is, on the grand scale, used against them to the benefit of many who actively disrespect them and gain a great deal of undue social, moral, political, and spiritual capital when nonbelievers don’t treat their own views and values as at least equal, but go along with contrary religious expressions as though what they personally think is a matter of indifference or embarrassment or mere nothingness. It’s a big part of why when other nonbelievers beg outspoken atheists to quiet down and be more respectful, I’m not willing to acquiesce. We’re not the ones making it harder for you. The problem for you is the social dominance of the religious that makes you assume the natural state of affairs is one where you, as a nonbeliever, must constantly walk on egg shells, placate, and kowtow to your fragile religious family or friends’ feelings lest you be the bad guy for having forthright opinions or abstaining from religious practices you don’t believe in.
And true believers, if they are, say, Evangelicals, are often looking to make Jesus Lord in all of their life, including their place of work, their family, their ostensibly religiously neutral social groups, and of course their governments. So the more that they can weave corporate religious expression into all manner group activities is the more they hope to conflate true group membership with deference to their religious rules and practices. If that means strong-arming a few nonbelievers into shutting up and playing along, they have no qualms about doing so in order to make Jesus the Lord of every sphere they happen to be involved in and convert as many people as possible and coerce as much Christianity-conforming behavior as they can. Again, it goes right back to power.
Also, remember, empathy and the ability to appreciate others’ perspectives are genuinely different than one’s own and the ability to reason from their point of view is not always easy for people. It’s hard for many true believers to really wrap their minds around what it’s like to think like a non-believer. It’s hard for them to vicariously conceive of it being a lie or a violation of conscience to acknowledge God. What could be a truer or more moral thing to do than worship God? The idea that an atheist might have a principled reason not to do so? You’d might as well suggest bad is good and black is white if you’re going to suggest that there’s a good reason not to acknowledge God! It’s almost definitional to many true believers that God is good and anything done for God or in acknowledgment of God is inherently good.
Insofar as they can empathize with nonbelievers and really imagine non-belief existing they often still really struggle with how a non-believer could have negative feelings towards their beliefs. Implicit in-group prejudice towards people like themselves religiously (something all members of all groups are vulnerable to falling into) becomes deeply exacerbated by explicit doctrines that teach that their religiosity (or at least some religiosity and theism) are absolutely integral to creating the morally and spiritually best goods. The idea that their religions might actually promote things that are less than the best is hard enough to entertain, let alone that they might be outright bad or destructive or evil. Too hard to even imagine without some serious prodding. So, they expect atheists to at least be benignly supportive and maybe even a little envious of their faith. And, to top it off, they see atheism as a big vacuous nothing, a mere negation of what they believe and so see nothing of conscience or positive commitment in that.
In case they are really curious and open minded, rather than just being rhetorical when asking that, I wrote my post, “Why Do Outspoken Atheists Care So Much About What They Don’t Believe?” to give a partial answer to such queries.
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